The Glasgow League of Writers have been given permission to resurrect some classic, iconic and some cases, lost characters from the D C Thomson archives who will feature each week in the digital pages of Comic Review, the digital version of Comic Heroes, the magazine dedicated to the world of comic books. Continuing his series of interviews with the Glasgow League of Writers and the creators behind the comics, Gordon Robertson, director of the 9th Art Festival, talks to Gordon McLean and Andrew Docherty about taking up the not inconsiderable challenge of breathing life back into one of D C Thomson’s most loved and most iconic characters, General Jumbo.
GR – Introduce yourselves to us.
GM – I’m Gordon Mclean, scriptwriter by choice and human because they won’t let me put my brain in a robot body. The damn NHS say it’s “frivolous” and “not actually possible”. I see through their hollow excuses!
I’ve written comics such as the award-winning No More Heroesas well as scripts for various films and even a wee bit of TV. Got a BAFTA in my back pocket too. Not that I’m boasting, of course. Ahem.
AD – I’m Andrew Docherty and I’m the guy Gordon Robertson asked to draw General Jumbo. I’m based at Hope Street Studios in Glasgow where I procrastinate like a boss and keep my paper.
GR – What made you choose General Jumbo as your character?
GM – As soon as I heard about the D C Thompson character revival project the first one that jumped into my head was General Jumbo. I loved him as a kid and his strips were always the first ones I read when I got comics and Christmas annuals. I was willing to fight to the death to get to be the one who brought back Jumbo – unfortunately it didn’t come to that and the money I spent on Ebay buying a chainsaw was wasted.
AD – Well, actually, Jumbo sort of chose me. I should probably clarify! I wasn’t a part of “Project Lazarus,” the secret group that secretly conspired to not-so-secretly resurrect long-dormant DCT properties until after the writers involved had all chosen their characters, and most had secured their artists. Gordon chose Jumbo – the guy’s mad for Jumbo – but at the time he still needed an artist.
It just so happened that back then the Glasgow League of Writers would have their meetings in a back room of the studio where I sometimes worked. You’d have to ask him why he decided to approach me, but he did, and when he did I believe I said “yes” in-between bites of a sausage roll and two beats of my heart.
Of course, at the time I had no idea who Jumbo actually was. All I knew was how accomplished a writer Gordon was. However, approximately seven minutes of Googling and a few dozen exploratory sketches later was enough to convince me that I had made the right decision!
GR – Tell us about General Jumbo.
GM – Original/classic General Jumbo was a wee kid who had an entire army of small robot soldiers, tanks, airplanes etc under his command. The miniature army and its wristband controller were gifted to Jumbo by their creator Professor Carter when the kid became his assistant. Jumbo would send his tiny troops out to help people and stop criminals and bullies in a very non-violent and kid friendly way.
AD – General Alfie ‘Jumbo’ Johnson is now a teenager who has lost a little of the zeal and can-do keenness that so beautifully punctuated his early adventures – back when he was an eternal twelve year old and the envy of every child who didn’t have an awesome, semi-sentient robotic army to call their own.
He’s let the world close him into a corner, to beat him down quite literally! But, of course, you can’t keep a good solider down forever – and Jumbo’s getting back on his feet in a big way!
GR – What changes did you feel you had to make to the character for a modern audience and why?
GM – With a slight twist Jumbo fits very neatly into modern times. After all, millions and millions of youths spend hours each day playing with their own private army, only now it’s on their TV screens and instead of a wristband controller it’s a Playstation or Xbox joypad. As such it seemed important to me to pitch Jumbo to today’s youth by saying, “Hey, if you think it’s cool running around as a soldier in Call of Duty? Imagine how cool it would be to have your own army in real life!”
I also wanted our story to be a continuation of Jumbo’s story, not a reboot. As such I’ve aged him so he’s now in his teen years in order to open up a whole new realm of stories while being respectful to his childhood era and keeping everything that’s already happened in-canon – no resetting or telling the audience “All the previous stuff that happened doesn’t count anymore.”
To add some depth to Jumbo I’ve replaced his youthful exuberance with teen troubles. The first story starts with him having abandoned his army and the Professor because he couldn’t handle being mocked by and ostracised from the other kids in school due to being “that fat weirdo who plays with toys.” Fortunately he learns to rise above it, as all good heroes do.
AD – The first thing I had to consider was how well my style would fit Jumbo and his world. My predecessors Paddy Brennan and Sandy Calder had already rendered his world so beautifully.
And that was the problem: I don’t do beautiful. I do caricature; I revel in the obtuse, the bizarre, the non-Euclidian – and sometimes I even flirt with the grotesque. The Jumbo that was and the Jumbo that was about to be by my hand were destined to be very different things – and that kind of worried me.
So I spent days trying to reconcile what had come before with what I imagined I was about to do next. I didn’t want Jumbo’s existing fans to feel that they didn’t know who this new/old kid on the block was, but I also didn’t wanted potential recruits to feel that they were reading a
Long story short, in the end I just decided to have fun with it – and boy did I have fun! Now that it’s done I’ve actually been told that my work has a vibe and a feel – y’know, sort of like an echo – of the Jumbo of days gone by. I occasionally wonder how much of that is deliberate!
Besides the overall look of the strip I also fretted over what was and is surely the most essential element of any Jumbo strip: his amazing mobile, wrist-mounted command centre! The script called for a more sleek, modern looking control device – something along the lines of a power gauntlet with all manner of input possibilities. I decided early on to cover the thing in as many touch screens as possible – we are living in the age of the iThing age, after all!
There are at least five touch screens on Jumbo’s new gauntlet, and at least four of them are curved. My favourite is the one just above the wrist: it is like a touch screen bracelet or watch that I imagine is full of sensors which can, upon Jumbo raising his arm in the air, run a comprehensive 360-degree sweep of his surroundings – perfect for acquiring vital intelligence on the fly!
There’re even touch panels on the back of Jumbo’s hands, and they’re sort of like the new PS4 controller; I imagine they’re the go-to interfaces for all manner of basic functions. Both hands also have sensors which can detect what Jumbo’s pointing at – ideal for directing and redirecting the troops at a moment’s notice!
GR – Were there any specific comics influences you brought to your reboot of the characters?
GM – None that I can think of beyond the original Jumbo stories
AD – Jumbo’s closest living relative is Ben 10, I think. Both have arm adornments capable of powering up their wearers when it’s clear that it’s Hero Time. I studied the way that artists have managed to make a kid Jumbo’s age look cool while posing and wearing nothing but a glorified wrist watch.
GR – What other projects are you working on?
GM – I’m working on some very exciting stuff including two comic projects with two of the biggest publishers in the business but I’m not allowed to talk about them yet! I’m having to bite my tongue so badly it’s half-ready to go on strike. On top of that I’ve started a film production company with a friend and we’re putting together the funding for a feature length comedy. Plus I’m working with another producer on a feature length thriller and a very special project celebrating a British comics icon. Again, can’t go into detail on any of them yet but hopefully soon I can stop being Mr Secretive and start being Mr Wish He’d Bloody Stop Talking About All the Things He’s Doing.
AD – I am the co-founder of a small indie press label called Imperious Press. There’s only two of us, really – me and Martin Ferguson, my writer. Together we self -publish a comic called Fat-Man and Ribbon, which is part semi-autobiography, part Batman and Robin parody, but all love letter to the superhero genre that we love so much. We have two other projects on the boil and hope to have them out by the end of the year.
Personally, I’m writing and drawing a comic called Pure Super Pals. It’s sort of a “what if the Avengers were based in Glasgow, but there wasn’t much avenging to do?” I’m having a hoot drawing it, and putting my half-remembered English degree to good use by cobbling together a narrative robust enough to contain the madness.
GR – Can we expect to see more of Jumbo soon?
GM – If there’s any publisher out there who’s interested I’d love to do more stories about General Jumbo. I’ve got a really cool story arc planned out that could be slowly seeded amongst and inbetween lots of smaller stories before building to the big pay-off. Would love the chance to get to tell it.
AD – I very much hope that people have as much fun reading General Jumbo as I’ve had drawing him! It would of course be beyond fully awesome if it was picked up to series but that is now in the hands of the fans – those who are meeting Jumbo for the first time, and those who (I hope) are about to welcome back an old friend.